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Web site impersonation could become as great a risk as ID theft, Paul Mockapetris, the co-inventor of DNS warns.

Waiting in the wings is a better security standard for the Internet's Domain Name System. It's called DNSSec, and it uses digital signatures to guard against impersonation. But political wrangles are holding up adoption, Mockapetris claims.

A denial of service attack last October which took out seven of the Internet's 13 DNS root-name servers last October, highlighted the fragility of the Internet's addressing system. Mockapetris, chief scientist at Internet infrastructure firm Nominum, reckons the threat has been overplayed: people are neglecting greater, related risks, he told us.

Since the data in root-name servers changes infrequently a denial of service attack has relatively little impact, unless it goes on for days, he argues. That's because key data is cached locally by large ISPs and enterprises.

However an attack against country level DNS, or worse, a successful attempt to counterfeit DNS data would have far greater impact.

To date there have been few such attacks, apart from the recent onslaught against the Al-Jazeera network. But the current DNS system provides no guarantees against impersonation and must be updated, Mockapetris argues.

The Internet Engineering Task Force has yet to ratify DNSSec, designed to underpin the system with security keys and certificates to create a "chain of trust" in some ways similar to extranet systems. According to Mockapetris, ratification of the standard, which has been in development for years, is still at least six months off.

Politics, rather than technology issues, are the main reason for the delay, he claims. Holding up progress are arguments over whether or not to grant ICANN the role as a trusted third party signing root keys, and disagreements over where a company should make all its domains secure at the same time.

Public Key Infrastructure systems have failed to storm the market as forecast, largely because of deployment headaches and incompatibility between different vendors.

Mockapetris believes a lightweight ("lean and mean") PKI infrastructure built into the DNS system through DNSSec has a much greater chance of becoming ubiquitous. The system could plug into browsers and provide for an automatic way to exchange keys. Cryptographic work would be done at the client by DNSSec-aware applications so DNS lookup speed will not suffer. This approach would allow secure DNS look-up by users - even if their own ISPs hadn't upgraded their DNS servers.

Government and financial service institutions could be using DNS Sec within two years and the standard could become ubiquitous in five years time, Mockapetris believes.

The system would mean surfers are guaranteed that they are taken to the Web site they intended to visit. DNS Sec would increase safeguards and detect attempts to impersonate sites, guarding against fraudulent Web scams.

Mockapetris sees the system as operating at a lower level than site certificates, which he described as a "complementary technology. I don't believe in the grand unification theory."

He describes DNS Sec as a first level ID check, which is still vital to build trust on the Net. "If you don't have secure DNS, how can you trust higher level protocols?"

A security model for DNS would bolster Web services and help secure IP telephony. Fraud and impersonation will run rampant without this security model, according to Mockapetris.

The DNS system provides a means for domain names to be translated into Internet Protocol addresses. DNS underpins email delivery and Web browsing.

Mockapetris co-invented the domain name system (DNS) in collaboration with the late Jon Postel) in 1983. He received an IEEE Internet Award this year for this work. ®

External Link

Everything you ever wanted to know about DNSSec (but were too frightened to ask)

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